Public-Private Partnerships Provide Creative Solutions to Colorado COVID Crisis

Silicon Flatiron’s panel on innovative COVID responses shares insight on economic plans, rural areas and stark situation

The Silicon Flatirons Center gathered a panel of business leaders, state officials and private sector workers for its annual Entrepreneurship Initiative Conference. The panel discussed how public-private partnerships can be used to solve problems that may be beyond the scope of government alone. This year, the panel had plenty to discuss as public-private partnerships have been used to respond to an array of issues related to the pandemic.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser began the event by noting that the government has continued to do things the way they have always been done. “Getting government to change is not easy,” Weiser said, adding that creative problem solving through entrepreneurship are needed — desperately and now — for all sorts of challenges. “These are challenges that we share as the people of Colorado, and the government can’t do it alone.”

At best, citizens, entrepreneurs, government, community groups and others work together in partnership around improving situations, Weiser said. He added that we currently live in a time where an incredible amount of cynicism exists about the role of key institutions and government, a sentiment that could be shared across many different sectors. 

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The current pandemic and its strains on the state government have triggered some innovation through public-private partnerships, such as volunteer networks or mental health support. 

“Public-private partnerships can solve real problems that exist today,” said Federico Peña, chair of the Governor’s Council on Economic Stabilization and Growth, a group of industry leaders created in March to bring experts from the private sector, workers organizations and public sector leaders together, developing strategies increasing work and moving Colorado’s economy forward. Starting with seven people, it has grown to more than 200 citizens on multiple committees, each reflecting a different sector of the economy from energy to healthcare, to make recommendations for local delegations, state legislative action and governor’s executive orders.

Peña said the group quickly identified several immediate public-private partnership needs arising from COVID, the first dealing with health care challenges at the state level and financial assistance for companies and workers. 

Wendy Lea, CEO of Energize Colorado, explained that her group has provided services to small businesses and other companies in a variety of ways ranging from advising to funding and providing mental health resources, all in response to the pandemic. Some kind of model for assistance with public-private partnerships was needed in order to deploy any help, she said. The original plan was to launch a statewide volunteer program, and now Energize Colorado has grown to hundreds of volunteers.

When running a public-private partnership, Lea said she struggled with the idea that everyone must succeed and everything must be interdependent. Both private sector and public sector actions must support each other and be interconnected to help produce results across various needs, she explained

Those three keys have resulted in a “very special opportunity” in this time to deliver high-impact actions to the state through addressing gaps in funding for COVID response, she explained. The idea of a gap fund was created to address shortcomings between the federal and the state government providing roughly $25 million from the state, and monies from the private sector funding as well. These pseudo-grants to small businesses gave an opportunity to businesses that never had a chance for getting help from the PPP program at the national level, Peña said.

But in order to take creative ideas, such as a gap fund, from idea to action, collaboration between different groups must take place. 

For a public-private partnership to achieve its goals its leaders must understand each group’s abilities, what they do well and how to bring them together, explained David Padrino, chief recovery officer at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, who leads the strategy and implementation for initiatives for COVID-19 recovery. 

“Having been inside the government, I know we can bring scale, and often an existing infrastructure set up to serve people — a  lot of times, we don’t have the speed to innovate, the creativity with funding and the ability to be laser-focused on outcomes,” Padrino said. Meanwhile, the private sector can add capital and a sort of no fear attitude of getting things done, he added. 

The gap fund was just one of several instances that highlighted successes in public-private partnerships, and Peña noted work on a separate fund currently underway that is being sponsored by the state, banks, private groups and others to help with economic recovery.

One area that had been of concern was rural places around the state. Many of the concerns that Peña and the CESG had identified were issues for rural Colorado — ranging from internet access to mental health. But despite these concerns, Delaney Keating, managing director of Startup Colorado, explained that a surprising aspect of community existed across the state  — even with economic and behavioral differences in response to the pandemic.

“It’s not always that rural is underserved or under-resourced — sometimes it’s just disconnected,” Keating said. 

Keating’s group predates the pandemic, and Startup Colorado has been working in public-private partnership fashion and is designed to support rural area partnerships. If there was a way of making a coherent playing field on behalf of the resources already there, Startup Colorado could better serve.

Startup Colorado is structured to foster “unique” partnerships and is looking at networks already available on the ground — the point is to build trust and collaboration. For rural areas, the industry-specific impacts of COVID parallel some at a state level.

Progress can only happen at the speed of the relationships that guide us, Keating said. Throughout the state, collaboration in rural places between Startup Colorado and the Office of Economic Development are designed to bookend strategies on the ground.

Some communities that Startup Colorado worried might have “crisis fatigue” from a mixture of natural incidents like avalanches, droughts, wildfires, COVID and other impacts — the attitude has been, “We’re fine, we’ve got this,” Keating said.

There is a lot of concern for tourist areas in an ongoing capacity, she added, there’s an interesting winter ahead.

However, factors for 2020 in the economy mark several downward trends.

Peña quoted figures provided to him from leading economists in the state. In Colorado, and the country, the economy peaked in February. Roughly 128 months of expansion in the economy had preceded February, and the unemployment rate was roughly 3% and now is over 7%. 

Approximately $5 trillion in relief funds from the federal government have been released since March, and the impact to businesses throughout Colorado have been extraordinary, he said. In June, 90,000 continuing claims for unemployment insurance has reduced to roughly 40,000 — remaining constant over several months, Peña said.

Small businesses have been impacted, Padrino said. Of all Colorado businesses that stopped advertising on Yelp in October, roughly 55% reported they are closed down “permanently.” In some areas providing free legal services to small businesses, about 30% have said they will need assistance with bankruptcy in the near term, Padrino said.

“This is bad — there is no other way to describe it,” Peña said.

 — Avery Martinez

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